History Lesson

The Avengers

Is it ever OK to kill Serbs? Nazis?

The execution-style killings of 14 Serbs by Albanian Kosovars in mid-July left a tight knot in my gut. Not any tighter than the knots left by the accounts of Serb atrocities against Albanian Kosovars, just different. For I can’t help asking: Do these acts of revenge undermine the humanitarian rationale of NATO’s intervention in Kosovo? Does the barbarism of a few of Slobodan Milosevic’s victims vitiate the justness of the war? Can we continue to view the Albanian Kosovars as the good guys? Although I can arrive at rational answers to these questions–no, no, and yes ()–the knot doesn’t go away.

Postwar acts of vengeance–ranging from isolated killings to the recommencing of full-scale combat–are as historically commonplace as they are morally problematic. The impulse to avenge is human, and the opportunities for it are abundant at the end of a war, when law and authority evaporate. But that doesn’t make them easy either to condone or to condemn unequivocally.

Consider the aftermath of World War II. When American and Allied troops rolled into Germany in 1945, a few of them raped and killed German citizens. In Czechoslovakia and Poland, some of those who had suffered under Nazi rule turned violently against their oppressors–or their oppressors’ countrymen–and hundreds, even thousands, may have been killed. (It’s important, however pedantic it may sound, to keep stressing that only “some” or “a few” partook of such vengeance, since even choosing to discuss these acts–and not the vastly more extensive crimes that preceded them–threatens to distort history.) No one would cheer these reprisals, but only the most twisted would shed their deepest tears for the Nazis and their supporters.

Jews, though scant among the revenge-takers, did in some cases seek retribution as well–and this chapter of the post-World War II retaliation has been especially problematic (as I explain). In a penetrating essay in the Forward last fall, Hillel Halkin asked whether Jews who pursued extremely drastic retaliation were “courageously honest in seeking to act out what others merely dreamed of, or … shockingly criminal? Or both? Or are all such categories simply irrelevant to the experience of people who, maddened by the loss of their families and entire worlds, might best be considered to have been ‘temporarily insane’ in the full and exculpatory legal sense of the term?”

T he specific group to which Halkin refers is the legendary (or notorious) “Revenge Group” organization founded in 1945 by a young, charismatic poet named Abba Kovner, who is at the center of a fascinating little chapter in the history of revenge killings. During the war, Kovner had vainly tried to defend the Jewish ghetto in Vilna, Poland, and at the war’s end he banded together with other ghetto-defenders and partisans. They all shared an apartment in Lublin, Poland, and one night they were sitting around drinking, contemplating their next move. “We sat with our glasses and the idea flew out of us and suddenly it was no longer in the air but on the table,” recalled one member, Pasha Reichman. “Everyone wanted revenge.” Specifically, they concocted the idea of a mass murder of their German oppressors. As Joseph Harmatz, one of their number, explained, they felt the only reason they had been spared death like so many friends and kin was so that they could administer revenge.

The small group of five soon grew in number to almost 40, according to one of the founders, drawing on survivors of the death camps as well as refugees from the forests. They devised two plans. Plan A involved poisoning the water supplies of major German cities. Plan B entailed killing off SS guards held in American POW camps. When Kovner tried to enlist support from Jewish authorities, they balked–some out of horror, some indifference. Nonetheless, Kovner procured some poison from a chemist in the future state of Israel. Meanwhile, Reichman and others–posing as German engineers or, in Harmatz’s case, a Polish knight–got jobs in the waterworks of Hamburg, Nuremberg, and other cities. They secured blueprints to the cities’ water mains, staying up late to memorize every detail. They figured out where to administer the poison as well as how to spare the sectors of the city where American troops were living.

Plan A went awry, however, when the British arrested Kovner as he attempted to leave Palestine. Reichman decided to revert to Plan B–the killing of SS guards. On April 13, 1946, under a full moon, a handful of his group broke into a bakery near Nuremberg that provided bread for the Allies’ Stalag 13 POW camp. A man they had planted in the bakery had managed to hide under the floorboards several bottles of arsenic, which had been tested on a cat in Paris. (The cat died.) They sprinkled the white powder on the loaves of black rye bread that were headed for Stalag 13. (Reichman and his men knew that on Sundays the American soldiers at the camp received only plain white bread to eat.) Suddenly, hearing the banging of window shutters that had come loose, security guards arrived, and Reichman’s men fled. Three thousand loaves were shipped off anyway–the guards suspected a burglary, not a poisoning–and as a result some 2,000 of the 15,000 prisoners came down with food poisoning. None, apparently, died.

With the failure of these two plans, most of the Revenge group migrated to Palestine. A few pursued a Plan C: retribution against known Nazi war criminals. They were joined in this dark enterprise by some renegade members of the Jewish Brigade–Jews who lived in Palestine during the war and fought with the Allies under British command. Some brigade members had arrived in Italy at the war’s tail end and, arriving too late for combat, vented their revenge impulses by hunting down Gestapo and SS agents around the Italy-Austria border.

Eventually, these soldiers got hold of a Gestapo official who provided them with a list of names of Nazi men, their wartime activities, even their addresses. They proceeded to track down some of the SS men who had participated in the mass extermination of Jews and, on their own authority, kill them. Typically, they would dress up as British military policemen, drive to the home of the SS man, and ask him to come with them on some conventional business. Then they would shoot or suffocate him.

The vast majority of Jews, of course, did nothing of the sort–just like the vast majority of Czech, Pole, and American soldiers. As the historian Daniel Jonah Goldhagen has written, what is striking among Holocaust survivors was, in fact, the relative absence of avenging actions. The more common response among Jews was to devote themselves to Zionism as a bulwark against future persecution, or to engage in symbolic retribution (banning Wagner from Israeli national radio), or to pursue justice through the Nuremberg war crimes tribunals or other legitimate arenas of justice. Likewise, many Nazi war criminals were punished, sometimes with death, by Polish courts of law.

It is always futile to try to draw practical lessons from history. Yet it seems possible that one reason Jewish acts of vengeance were relatively few was simply that the Nuremberg trials existed. Jews could take comfort that at least some of the most evil of their oppressors would be punished by a united world opinion. Other efforts to prosecute Nazi war criminals–from the apprehension of Adolf Eichmann in 1960 to the ongoing efforts of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the U.S. Office of Special Investigations–continue the honorable policy of replacing lawless revenge with legitimate justice. Even so, it’s worth considering that a more vigorous pursuit of Serbian war criminals, while unlikely to stop every retaliatory killing, might nonetheless send a signal that the world believes justice to be a substitute–not an instrument–for revenge.